What a gem of a day. I have had one full day to savour the delights of Transition Westbridgford (http://www.transitionwb.co.uk/) and feel I have really made the most of it. I feel as if I have been here for ages and consider I have made some good friends. This is all down to transition trainer Mike Payne, unfortunately away on family business himself, but who very ably fixed it for me to stay with Thea Marsh, garden share and skills share member, and to meet Karina Wells, one of the founders of Transition Westbridgford.
I hear from Karina that the small Transition West Bridgford steering group was excellent in setting up the group and sorting out the constitution, the bank accounts etc. They did have some film viewing but during the meetings the emphasis stayed too long on the academic side and there was a lot of talking going on, when for her transition was about taking action. Karina only attended 1 Transition Nottingham hub meeting as they were too far away and she needed a car to get there. The Transition Nottingham hub was trying to have influence over what the other local transition groups were doing; as West Bridgford alone has a population of 60,000 it was quite large enough in itself to be an initiative. When the Transition Nottingham finance group was looking at the viability of the Nottingham pound, Karina did not feel that would be the way forward for West Bridgford with her understanding of our current economic system having worked for a large investment bank, she realised that the system is inherently flawed and can never be sustainable. She started the Gems scheme in West Bridgford http://www.wbskills-exchange.
I am fascinated to have this explained to me by someone who looks at the present system from a different angle.Our economy encourages saving and hoarding, neither of which are healthy states for a system. I am reminded of the cause of heart attacks; clogged arteries, and my conversation with Mary in Huntingdon about how it is the structure in systems that always eventually leads to them breaking down, for a system needs to be fluid to work well, just as a river flows and the water remains clear whereas a canal can soon become stagnant water and start to be very unhealthy water. I think of repressed emotions and their link to illness and disease and how growths such as cancer, and cases of obesity are all fundamentally caused by there being a blockage of flow of emotion through the body.
Karina explains to Thea, myself, fellow skill share member Magda, and partner Andy, why many LETs schemes http://www.letslinkuk.net break down, and Andy coins the phrase the LETs Crunch! What happens in all of these systems; our present economy, local currencies (which have been sold on E Bay by some enterprising folk, and are becoming collectors’ items for others, a point over where I have heard alarm bells for ages) and LETs schemes is that some people hoard and some people take more than others. The balance is lost.
Collecting, saving, and hoarding all result in a stagnant system. A system only works when whatever token represents trade is used, is flowing from one person to another, constantly. As soon as it stops being in circulation it ceases to be of value to the system and causes the hoarder to have an unfair advantage over others. The token, be it money, local currency, or another representation of value, needs to be in constant circulation; the idea of saving came from the original Jewish bankers hoarding the gold pieces. Saving for a rainy day causes systems to break down and the present to be less productive and enjoyable than it would be if people put their energy, their efforts, their representations of value into immediate use for the benefit of the whole system.
In the Gems scheme every one of the 75 members is given 10 gems to start off with and must repay them if they leave the scheme. Some people are better at accumulating gems than others – so plumbers and electricians quite often end up having earned 30 gems as everyone wants their services. Others earn very little, and need to be encouraged to recognise what skills they have so if there is a member of the scheme who is not making any gems Karina will talk to them to find out what they can do and so for example a lady recently discovered that her daily commute into the city could earn her gems if she filled her car with other people needing to get into the city. 1 gem is paid out for every hour of time that any member of the skill share gives of their time; no matter what it is they contribute.
People who end up with more than 30 gems are not encouraged to earn more until they have spent what they have; these people typically do not spend as they are too busy working. This is not good for them and they are encouraged to spend their gems on things that are nice, and good for them, such as a massage to help them relax. In this way Karina keeps the gems moving and not static sitting in someone’s purse. I am reminded of Rob Hopkin’s plea to us all at the launch of the Totnes Pound, which was to please not stick our free pound to our fridge door as a keepsake but to go out and spend it, which I did, excitedly the next day. I wonder how many of those original free 1 Totnes pound notes were not put straight into circulation. It would be an interesting piece of research to do to find out just how many of those people who gathered in St John’s Church on that evening way back in October 2008 actually understood the concept and went out and spent their pound.
Karina’s explanation of our monetary system is the most sensible I have heard and I finally feel OK with my decision not to have borrowed money to buy a house but to live within my means each month, earning what my energy has given me, and putting it straight back into the system so that others can benefit too. I do feel sad though that our right to live on a piece of land, build a home, and grow our food should be linked in any way to what we can hoard and borrow from others who have hoarded even more; it sounds a little like the Little Red Hen fable http://www.enchantedlearning.com/stories/fairytale/littleredhen/story gone horribly wrong to me! We have for too long applied this work ethic towards saving as being the only one that has any value and now we see the results of valuing only one type of behaviour over others.
If there were a way we could create whereby every human being were allowed to live on a piece of land and grow their food upon it, and given that only 1 acre is needed to feed 7 people if we were all to be a bit more sensible with about our health and eat less meat and use less animal related products such as leather and dairy we could actually feed everyone a lot more easily and with a lot less work and damage to the environment. In this type of system skill sharing would not only be an effective way of ensuring everyone got the support they needed but also build community and resilience.
Karina was reluctant to get involved in a local currency scheme in Nottingham whose population is 700,000 because the optimum maximum size for a skill share pool is 80. She has learnt from past experience (her first go at developing a skills share; Chippings, taught her much about what did and did not work) that once a group grows beyond knowing everyone in the group it no longer functions effectively. She capped the current group at 75 when she realised that she did not remember a member by face. This was a telling moment for she meets each and every new member who wants to join as it is important to have a range of skills within each group. 12 interested people are all that are needed to give enough energy to start up a new group.
What she encourages anyone else that asks to do now is that they start their own skills share group. I love this idea, as each little group develop an identity and a people skilled in all the areas they need this will strengthen their sense of community and when this has happened with several groups surely from that place of strength of having their basic needs met from within the group they will be able to reach out to neighbouring groups and see on what level they can support one another and collaborate. It seems to me like a perfect model for transitioning large places. Without this coherence at this level the larger decisions are doomed to fail as not everyone is getting their immediate needs met and therefore cannot contribute fully to a wider initiative. I am thrilled by the insights talking to Karina has given me and am grateful for her sharing of her wisdom and the learning she got from within the investment banking world.
Karina is really happy to share her idea with anyone who would like to start one up. The most challenging part is the administration but now that we can all share documents so easily with google it is left to individuals to keep their column with skills shared and gems earned up to date.
I leave Karina’s house with a recycled carton purse containing 1 gem and her contact details to take on my travels up to York the end of the next stage of my journey, and my very own recycled carton purse containing 1 gem which I may use to have a hot stone massage from skill share member Mike Finn.
Mike is a fascinating character, having left the pharmaceutical industry to retrain as a masseur he also practices aromatherapy and reflexology and says that the world of medicine is missing touch therapies and cannot possibly be successful without that aspect. It is again a wonderful feeling to be around someone who has been intrinsically involved in a world that is so far removed from connection to the natural world and who has stepped out admitting that it is a flawed system.
Mike does massage for gems. He has money still from his pharmaceutical days and is living off it. He is happy that now he is able to do what he loves. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in what he does. I would say that in addition to being a competent masseur, easing away the tensions I didn’t even know I had in my back from carrying my pack every day with ylang ylang and frankincense oil and hot volcanic stones, Mike is a great storyteller!
I hear about how the slave trade actually started; the first “slaves” to be sent out to Barbados to work the sugar cane plantations were our own people; Cornish predominantly, but others too, all of whom had been labelled criminal for trying to feed themselves in a Britain where the Enclosures Act had taken from people the means to grow their food. When more slaves were needed Africans were chosen and then when they disappointedly didn’t work as hard as expected white overseers were put in place.
We talk of the importance of doing what we are passionate about for our good health and that as the Zen Masters say – a journey of a hundred steps starts with just one.
I have lunch with Thea at neighbour Jack’s house, he is a wonderful cook and produces the most exquisitely flavoured prawns, new potatoes and fresh salad. I meet Abra, another friend, and suffering terribly from bladder infection the doctors cannot shift and have transferred her on to a second type of anti biotics. As we talk it becomes increasingly obvious that Abra is trapped in a job that is not making her happy, with a family to look after, and is totally overwhelmed and exhausted, small wonder her body cannot find sufficient resources to fight the infection.
She is tearful as she realises the root of her dis-ease and we talk about gems and skill sharing. Abra had just moved to a nearby neighbourhood; Clifton, and could start one up there. She practises reflexology and could offer that. I hope Thea can put her in touch with Karina.
Later in the evening Magda comes to visit me; we have been delighted that we have a Brazilian connection, Magda is from Belo Horizonte, a city I have visited, and we hope to speak Portuguese for a while. That doesn’t happen as no one else could then join in our conversation but we do exchange contact details and talk about how hard it is for a Brazilian to feel at home in England when Brazilians are so community and family minded. I recall how every woman that visited a friend would always go to the kitchen to help, and their help would be appreciated and welcomed and no one was ever left any washing up to do.
I suggest Thea and Magda might start up a celebration group in Westbridgford; it seems they are both very people orientated and fun loving and would have a great time doing this. Magda loves the idea of doing things with Thea and is invited to go along to the next folk club evening with Thea and Ian.
Thea sings us her Green Lane song; she is inspired to put together a bit of a transition theme for her next Monday night repertoire for the folk club. It is a beautiful song about being able to travel as the crow flies and we wonder if we could get her songs recorded for the Transition Westbridgford website.
I am moved to tears by the next song she sings us, accompanied by her guitar, it is a song entitled “leave a flower” for the next generation, and continues, even when you have concreted over the last piece of land to give to your children, leave them a flower. It is not ours to do as we would with. The song was found in an old book from a charity shop and for me illustrates how unhappy we are with the society we have created.
There is a lot to be done it is true, but like Karina, I am inclined to think that the academics of Nottingham and the eager young Rutland group big thinking often makes a task more impossible to do than just talk about; it is the one step at a time Mike spoke of, the actions, the projects, the group by group approach that is actually starting to make a difference.
I would encourage other transition initiatives who are large. to start thinking of themselves in this way; transitioning cities neighbourhood by neighbourhood, group by group, one by one, step by step. Manageable people sized tasks, hour by hour.
I realise as I sit here, in Derbyshire idyll, how much I learnt from my short stay in Nottinghamshire. There were questions to throw out to the transition movement from Karina; how do you measure produce people have grown, by the time put in to grow it? 1 gem a box? It is a fruitful discussion that I think is worth exploring.
Karina teaches biodynamic gardening on her allotment patch and is now producing so much produce there is enough to share.
On a wider scale Transition Westbridgford have questions about the power station that Nottingham has in addition to the highest incidence of asthma in the country…
In Switzerland a similar plant’s excess heat and energy has been used to support an Eden Project scheme which is now growing food for the locals and becoming a tourist attraction to bring in more income to the region. Karina is talking to the owners of Nottingham’s power station, EON, and to the county council to do the same.
A few years ago, Karina came under criticism from some of the people involved with the Green Festival for inviting bus companies but West Bridgford felt a need to start from where people are at and were well aware of excessive car use including driving to the airport so they decided more bus travel was the next step. As a result Nottingham City Transport now offer cheap fares and a free local shop link.
I have been thrilled with Nottinghamshire’s travel policy – they have parish boards in each village with all the public walks clearly shown on maps. There is a real can do sense about Nottingham which I find invigorating.
Karina has deliberately never been on the Steering Group of Transition as she wanted other people to set up the group. She has set up lots of different sub groups like the Skills Exchange, the Summer Gathering, Green Streets etc and is stepping back from these (apart from the Skills Exchange) and hopes that will make way for a new group of people to step up and be empowered. If there are others like those I have met during my stay around then Nottingham cannot fail to succeed!